The Century City Playhouse Birthed a Golden Age of Jazz

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The Century City Playhouse wasn’t much to look at on the outside. The exterior at 10508 Pico Blvd. in Rancho Park was a plain storefront with a marquee. In the late 1970s it hosted a long-running production called Bleacher Bums the way that The Drunkard had been installed for decades at a theater on La Cienega. Inside it wasn’t any flashier — a one-story box with a few rows of old theater chairs. But to the small but vehement army that comprised the SoCal new-music community, the CCPH was the place to be on Sunday nights.

Beginning in 1976, a little golden age blossomed in that matte-black space. UCLA music student Lee Kaplan presented nationally known jazz stars and improvisers, including violinist Billy Bang; trumpeters Leo Smith, Butch Morris, Baikida Carroll, Barbara Donald and Toshinori Kondo; trombonists George Lewis and Benny Powell; woodwind virtuoso Doug Ewart; saxophonists Frank Lowe, David Murray, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Hamiet Bluiett, John Zorn, Henry Threadgill, Marty Ehrlich, Tim Berne, Evan Parker and Sonny Simmons; pianist Burton Greene; guitarists Michael Gregory Jackson, Eugene Chadbourne, Derek Bailey and Henry Kaiser; bassists Fred Hopkins, Charlie Haden and John Lindberg; drummers Oliver Johnson and Steve McCall; and vocalists Doug Carn, Diamanda Galas and Joan LaBarbara.

He also booked local players — both established and emerging — like cornetist Bobby Bradford; trombonists Glenn Ferris, Bruce Fowler and John Rapson; clarinetist John Carter; flutist James Newton; saxophonists Sam Phipps and Marty Krystall, Frank Morgan and Peter Kuhn; pianist Horace Tapscott; keyboardists Don Preston and Wayne Peet; guitarists Nels Cline, Dave Pritchard and Steve Bartek; bassists Buell Neidlinger, Noah Young, Roberto Miranda, Mark Dresser and Eric von Essen; drummers Alex Cline, Bert Karl and Michael Preussner; dancer Margaret Schuette; and Kaplan himself on electronics.

The larger world kept tabs on the CCPH through Mark Weber’s columns and extended interviews in Coda magazine. An unsigned, quarter-page “Downbeat” feature in the spring of ’79 was accompanied by a Ron Pelletier photo. A KCRW broadcaster, he and Weber assiduously documented jazz and new music around the Southland with their cameras. Under Kaplan’s untiring aegis, Los Angeles became a destination for touring outfits that pursued a left-of-center muse.

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